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I Fanciulli del Met

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

One of the particular pleasures of my duties at OPERA NEWS is the privilege of attending final dress rehearsals at the Met. If anyone had told me as a young teenager, when I was first bitten by the opera bug, that some day going to the opera would be part of my job, I would have been in a much bigger hurry to grow up.

Of course, just getting to sit there for free in a red-plush seat (during the work day, no less) watching the great vocal artists of our time ply their trade is a pretty nifty perk in itself. But for me, a big part of the fun nowadays is being present along with a whole balcony-full of young people as they discover opera — many of them, no doubt, for the first time.

Last week, the Met revived Gian Carlo del Monaco's lively spaghetti-Western production of Puccini's brilliantly colorful and dramatic, achingly sentimental Fanciulla del West. It gave me a great kick to sense the surprise and excitement of those youngsters as they realized that this elevated art form had room in it for lusty barroom brawls, live horses and gunslinging women holding their own in an overwhelmingly male world. There was a distinctly twenty-first-century-feminist tinge to the audible reaction from the peanut gallery when Minnie first pulled her tiny pistol out of her bosom to fend off the advances of Jack Rance. And there's definitely something to be said for straightforward realism, especially where new audiences are concerned. I strongly doubt that if Minnie and Dick Johnson had appeared in some high-concept production, in the guise of, say, apes or bumble bees, the kids in the family circle would have burst into spontaneous, giggly applause when the heroine surrendered to her first kiss, or cheered her so heartily when she arrived just in time to free him from the posse.

There are times when audience noise can be a most unwanted distraction. (At that very same rehearsal, one fan was so eager to share his admiration of Marcello Giordani's "Ch'ella mi creda" that he shouted "Bravo!"at the top of his lungs just as an emphatic chord from the orchestra punctuated Jack Rance's punching the unfortunate Johnson in the gut. This musically and dramatically misplaced interruption gave the effect that the shouter was encouraging the sheriff's brutality.) The irrepressible and instinctively appropriate responses of the schoolchildren at the back of the house, on the other hand, lent an added charge to the proceeding that enhanced the experience for at least one jaded operagoer down in the orchestra section. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

The Big Buzz

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Arts Journalism) Permanent link

There's no ignoring the power of buzz, and no singer this season has yet proved as buzzworthy as Marina Poplavskaya, who recently made her Met debut as Elisabetta in Don Carlo and is poised to sing Violetta with the company in Willy Decker's already-famous "red-dress" La Traviata. It's a rare thing — it always has been — for an opera singer to be the subject of a major profile in a mainstream magazine. So when Gay Talese's profile of Poplavskaya appeared in the December 6 issue of The New Yorker, I was happy to see the magazine, which is increasingly weighed down with wobbly fiction and dominated by lengthy political analyses, paying a little more attention to cultural matters, which are, after all, what established its reputation.

Since Don Carlo opened, I have received an amazing number of phone calls from friends and colleagues who wanted to know what I thought about Poplavskaya. What I find interesting is that they don't really want to know what I thought about her performance as Elisabetta, which I heard recently. They want to know what I thought of Talese's profile. "Have you read the Poplavskaya piece? Have you read it? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU HAVEN'T READ IT?" I was beginning to get the feeling that the other things occupying my thoughts — what to get my sister-in-law for Christmas, where to find a contractor to do house repairs, whether to take my cat to the dentist, or finding the time to finish writing my latest book — were all things I didn't deserve to be worrying about. I should instead be experiencing what I was beginning to think must be a milestone in cultural journalism.

This morning, I finally sat down, closed my door, turned off the telephone and read Talese's profile.

It opens with a very New Yorkerish nonfiction trick — the relating of a specific action in the subject's life, told in plangent detail. You know the type: "On a recent chilly morning in September, Estelle Rubin left the apartment she had occupied for the last forty-five years on Manhattan's West Side, on a grocery-shopping expedition. As she approached her neighborhood Food Emporium, she noticed a man she had never seen before standing on the corner, wearing nothing but ankle socks and a surgical mask, loudly singing a ballad from the obscure 1940s musical Ankles Aweigh...."

Talese's article began this way: "On an August night this past summer, the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya lay motionless for nearly three hours on the floor of her mother's apartment in Moscow, having collapsed shortly after 4 A.M. from inhaling noxious smoke from the forest fires that were burning out of control in the countryside...." The author developed this scene at some length, in the process confusing me. I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was: was he suggesting that Poplavskaya had somehow started the forest fires? But the point eventually became clear. The soprano telephoned a friend: "'Darling, I'm about to die," she whispered into the receiver. 'And so I ask that you help take care of my mother!'" It was Talese's clever way of setting up Poplavskaya as a creature with a truly dramatic nature.

I was expecting this to be a prelude that was going to make the link between the diva's often excessive and outrageous behavior in real life and the spell she weaves on the stage. But that never happened: Talese's piece was really just a catalogue of bizarre personality quirks, ranging from Poplavskaya's tendency as a child to burst into song in the classroom whenever she was bored, through her terrorization of cab drivers and rehearsal pianists, to her insistence on bringing her own towels to her Met dressing room. At no point did Talese attempt to connect all of this with her artistry and musicianship. Nor, for that matter, did his article delve into her singing in any detailed way. Seven pages of text, plus a full-page photo — and no real discussion of her an artist.

I think there's plenty to say about Poplavskaya. Listening to voices is a highly subjective thing, and I don't quite agree with critic Zachary Woolfe that her tone has a "smoldering darkness." The night I attended the Met's Don Carlo, I didn't hear a great deal of color in her voice at all. But she can act, and she has presence — and she was certainly light years ahead of her countrywoman Anna Smirnova, who was vocally the clumsiest Eboli I've ever experienced.

Talese has sometimes not shown the best timing in his career. His 1971 novel Honor Thy Father, about the mob, appeared two years after another book on the same topic, called The Godfather, caused something of a stir in the publishing world. But his article on Poplavskaya never gets out of first gear. It came as something of a jolt, given the magazine's distinguished history of music reporting — from Winthrop Sargeant to Andrew Porter to Alex Ross. Does the Poplavskaya profile represent the standard of cultural coverage we can now expect from The New Yorker? spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Elina Garanča’s Body Language

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

Some of the Met's revivals this season have been somewhat dispiriting for audiences and critics, so I am particularly grateful for Elina Garanča. Her interpretation of the Gypsy in Richard Eyre's production of Carmen, which I saw again last Tuesday night, has only improved with further outings. She has been criticized for "under-acting," but I find her calculating, fatalistic Carmen gripping. Garanča is at her best in Act IV: I have never seen a Carmen who physicalizes the final confrontation so breathtakingly. The way she works the train on her dress, whipping it through the rose petals strewn for the toreadors or collapsing into it when Don José tackles her to the ground — it’s an achievement in itself. spacer
OUSSAMA ZAHR

The New Normal

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Broadway, Musical Theater) Permanent link

Why are so many people I know so resistant to the ongoing reinvention of the Broadway musical? Why should love of the great classics of the form — South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Gypsy, Guys and Dolls — blind us to the creative explosions that have been erupting on Broadway in the past several years? I have never seen a musical that plumbed the sorrowful complexities of love as deeply as Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza. And Grey Gardens was the richest, saddest, most hilarious examination of an incredibly difficult subject that I could possibly imagine. (My best friend and I had one of our rare disagreements when he told me that he thought Scott Frankel's music sounded as if it was written by a high-school student; I found it an uncannily perfect fit for Michael Korie's lyrics — the best lyrics, incidentally, I've heard in years.) Both The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens had difficulty finding their audience, and Grey Gardens never really succeeded in doing so. But despite the fact that they both took place in the American past, these shows crackled with a modern sensibility — and not enough people cared.

Recently, I urged friends to catch Next to Normal, which now stars husband-and-wife artists Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley as a couple whose lives are blighted by the wife's ongoing mental illness. The score, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is an amazingly demanding one, and it's unthinkable that the stars could get through it without exercising everything they know about technical command, about holding back vocally and not getting so lost in the emotionalism of the music and words that they do themselves permanent vocal damage. Yet I've seldom seen two performances in the musical theater that I thought showed less artifice, less obvious "control." One of Mazzie's strong suits is her astonishing ability to generate heat onstage. Anyone who witnessed her brilliant turn as Lily Garland in the Actors' Fund of America concert version of the Cy Coleman–Betty Comden–Adolph Green On the Twentieth Century, back in 2005, will know what I mean. In Next to Normal, her tormented Diana seems utterly skinless: there is no barrier between her and the audience; she submerges herself so deeply in the role that you wonder if she will ever be able to come back for the curtain call. As her husband, desperately trying to see his wife through an illness for which the "remedies" are notoriously short-term and not even understood fully by the doctors who administer them, Danieley gives a moving, beautifully judged performance. The scene in which he reluctantly agrees to let Diana undergo electroshock treatment is all but impossible to shake off. Mazzie and Danieley plan to be in the show until January. It would be a grave mistake to miss them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Yellow Tail Wine's Operatic Offense

(Observations, Adam Wasserman, Listening, Criticism, Commercials) Permanent link

Opera and television occupy decidedly different spheres of my life, and, truth be told, I'll almost always choose the former over the latter. Television usually only fits the bill when I'm looking for a quiet night in, with minimal impact on my grey matter or wallet. And — as someone who really only finds inner peace after a stressful day by watching onions caramelize — I'll often default to just three channels during the course of an evening in front of the tube: the Food Network, the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel. As a result of occupying what I assume is a rather predictable gustatory demographic, the number of times that I've encountered the below commercial for Yellow Tail wine in the past few months now stands somewhere close to the number of pages currently stuffed into Charlie Sheen's police file.

Fellow opera-goers, I ask you: is this not the lamest, most odious commercial ever aired? If any of you are like me, the appearance of this ad must also prompt your family and friends to burst into laughter at the conspicuous rising of your blood pressure, that pulsing vein in your neck, your violent clenching of the chair arms, followed by obscene gesturing at the television and an apoplectic descent into the nadirs of the English vocabulary. Let me say, unequivocally, that I despise this commercial more than any piece of advertising I've ever encountered. According to the information accompanying the YouTube video, the ad was created by the Burns Group, an agency known as such a conspicuous arbiter of good taste that its other clients include Fruity-Cocoa Pebbles, Beck's Beer and Hebrew National hot dogs.

I suppose what makes this ad so fundamentally insulting to me as an opera-goer is that, in addition to it being obvious that the director knows nothing about the art form he's skewering, it's viscerally repellent. Clearly filmed on a shoestring budget — it was shot on location in the perennially teeming vacation spot that is Rovinj, Croatia — the spilled wine looks like thick strawberry Kool-Aid and the voices are out-of-sync with the actors. Most notably, though, their voices are off pitch and abysmal. They're not just bad parodies of trained operatic voices — they also happen to bad. Could the folks at the Burns Group really not find a pair of young, conservatory trained singers that could, at the very least, do this lame jingle justice?

The tagline for the ad, "Great wine doesn't have to be expensive," seems to suggest that the commercial's creators equate opera — or some terribly conceived signifier for it — with the one label that still seems deserving of derision in an era notable for the relative degree of political correctness in commercial advertising: elitist. The truth of the matter is that opera isn't nearly as snobby or — with the popularity of Live in HD screenings and rush ticket programs — expensive as the commercial's creators seem to think. Nor, for that matter, is Yellow Tail's shiraz anything even approaching "great." (According to the company, Yellow Tail's chardonnay is "best served at backyard temperature," while a recommended food-pairing for its merlot is a chicken sandwich. Bacchus, it seems, has become a fan of KFC.)

Maybe I'm being oversensitive about a mindless portrayal of an art form that I love, or maybe it's just that this ad seems so completely devoid of any of the redeeming characteristics attendant in the other commercials that have drawn opera as inspiration. (Ghirardelli Chocolate and British Airways, which both use Lakmé's flower duet, and Johnsonville Italian Sausages, which ran a commercial with Domingo's "Di quella pira" as its soundtrack a few years back, stick out in my mind as particularly effective.) Either way, it's rare that I see a commercial that strikes me as so repugnant that I'll actually go out of my way to avoid a company's product — let alone write a 700 word screed about it. Yellow Tail has done the deed. I'd rather have a glass full of bits of cork. spacer 

ADAM WASSERMAN

Big Music in Little Spaces

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

In the past couple of weeks, two musical events of a somewhat homespun nature have reminded me that the soul of great music lies not in such commercial principles as starry names and big crowds, nor even in note-perfect renditions of a score, but in the dedication, love and joy the performers bring to their task and the magical realms they weave for their listeners in sound. At any level, music-making, to be any good, must be a labor of love that draws the audience in and lets us share in the triumph, and that is precisely what emerged on both these occasions.

The first was a house concert hosted by my friend Jim, who decided on the spur of the moment to offer his living room as a venue for three talented musicians to try out a new program. The second was a concert performance of Handel's Rinaldo, uncut, with piano accompaniment, given at my local church by the New York Opera Forum. My friend's living room accommodates something short of twenty-five seats, and though the church is somewhat larger, it was, alas, less than a quarter full for this event. From a commercial standpoint, one might have thought it a waste of the artists' long hours of preparation to perform for audiences that, combined, would not have filled a single row at the Met.

Not so.

When the young violinist Colin Pip Dixon introduced the Kreuzer Sonata by reminding us that its dedicatee had declined ever to attempt the piece on the grounds that it was unplayable, then proceeded to play the bejesus out of it; when Ivy Adrian, at the keyboard, drew a whole symphony orchestra's worth of sound from Jim's parlor upright, with the rest of us so close behind her we could almost imagine we were playing this incredible music ourselves, surely Beethoven was well served.

When Tonia Manteneri all but literally raised the roof of the church with a whopping high note, from a spot barely twenty feet in front of us; when, in the Rinaldo–Almirena duet "Scherzano sul tuo volto," Marilyn Spesak and Karole Lewis traded exquisite and ravishingly voiced pedal-point effects that seemed to suspend time, or Spesak and Manteneri faced off in a war of notes more viscerally thrilling than any hyper-realistic 3D movie battle; when Richard Nechamkin, at the piano, transported every person in the room far from big-city cares to Almirena's serene and bucolic garden; when Tyler Wayne Smith, a countertenor I'd never heard of, sailed through Handel's formidable hurdles unscathed, in a voice of rich resonance and expressive warmth — surely these earnest performers' labor was not lost.

And when a casual operagoer cannot help laughing in sheer delight at the vocal fireworks; when an entire audience leans in to the keyboard as one with the pianist in a particularly intense passage, or exerts all its collective energy to will a singer through a particularly challenging passage, then cheers him to the rafters when he succeeds, the musical gods must be smiling as beneficently on these anonymous efforts as they ever smiled on the top box-office draw at the greatest opera house in the world. 

These names may never be household words in the music industry, but in my book, the thrilling connection they made with a small handful of music-lovers on those two memorable nights rendered them worthy present-day votaries to the same muse that inspired Handel and Beethoven so many years ago. spacer

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Patricia Racette’s It Gets Better Video

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Advice, It Gets Better) Permanent link

Soprano Patricia Racette, who appears this month and next in Il Trovatore at the Met, has contributed a video to the It Gets Better Project, which was launched in response to the rash of gay teen suicides that have appeared in the news.

In the video, Racette and her partner, mezzo Beth Clayton, speak touchingly about the personal significance of Racette's "coming out" cover story in OPERA NEWS in 2002.

The video is available on the Metropolitan Opera's YouTube channel. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Indelible Impressions

(Observations, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

I have always considered myself very lucky that my first two Broadway experiences, as a small child, were of two truly iconic performances — Yul Brynner's King in The King and I and Carol Channing's Dolly in Hello, Dolly! Both were, of course, late-career nostalgic revivals for their stars, but the dazzling charisma that had made their earlier portrayals famous was undimmed, and though I had nothing to compare these greats to at the time, the bar was set very high: I came to expect something special from a night at the theater, and to recognize and appreciate it when it did.

My operagoing life began in much the same way. Back in elementary school, I used to join eagerly in the annual class trips to the Met — sometimes a rehearsal, sometimes a student performance — led by my kindergarten teacher, herself a one-time Met chorister. Though I am sure at the time a large part of the draw was getting out of school for the day, I can recall several occasions on which my young ears were permanently imprinted with a level of vocal brilliance that I took for granted in my innocence but have valued more and more in retrospect. There was, for example, a student performance of La Traviata with Robert Merrill as Germont — the only time I heard the Great American Baritone live (with the exception of numerous Star-Spangled Banners at Yankee games) but more than enough to form my lasting impression of what a Verdi baritone should be.

Another memorable trip was a 1975 Puritani — a work that, needless to say, I had never heard of at the time, with a plot that, despite Mrs. Harris's best efforts, I was able to follow only in a vague, childish way. (I'm still not entirely sure I know what it is all about.) I remember a greater than usual sense of occasion — my parents were opera fans, so the names of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes were familiar to my fledgling ears even before Mrs. Harris had given us a glowing idea of what to expect. In the event, I am ashamed to confess that what remains of my first impression of the great Pavarotti is that the combination of his physique with the long cloak that hung over his long sword rendered his profile indistinguishable from that of a large duck, and that for all the ballyhoo I preferred the voice of Mr. Gross, the admirable tenor soloist in our church choir at the time.

Joan Sutherland, though, was a different matter. I remember thinking her appearance ideal — that great, imposing jaw seemed just right for an operatic heroine — but I remember most of all the astonishing accuracy of her coloratura, the awesome scale of her voice, and the sense that she was singing all her lines not because someone happened to have written some pretty music for them but because there were things she needed to express that could be communicated in no other way. Thanks to Sutherland, no one ever had to explain to me what the big deal about a "mad scene" was: the concept of music as a conveyer and enhancer of dramatic/emotional truth was unmistakable even to the merest novice. Sutherland knew how to achieve that strange operatic alchemy by which pain and suffering can be transformed through sound into transcendent beauty that touches the soul.

Her death this week was a reminder to me of how incredibly fortunate I'd been to have the privilege of hearing such once-in-a-lifetime artistry in the flesh. Much as I love listening to her recordings, I cherish much more that memory of having been there in real time. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

The Music of My Life

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

After a very trying week that has included watching over an aging parent in the hospital, waiting for the insurance inspectors to arrive in the tornado-torn streets of my hometown and enduring a plumbing crisis that will deprive me of my accustomed morning shower for weeks and cost half a year's salary to fix, I found myself trying to fend off insanity by contemplating my personal woes in terms of an operatic soundtrack that might distill immortal beauty from temporal madness as only the lyric art can do.

If I were to choose a composer to orchestrate the more tempestuous events of my life of late, it would have be Verdi, whose storm scenes so brilliantly capture the fascinating and humbling combination of terror and natural splendor evoked in the human breast by what the law and the insurance companies quaintly refer to as "Acts of God." Of course, the start of Wagner's Walküre belongs high on the list of torrential depictions, as does the wonderful Wolf's Crag scene in Lucia ("Orrida e questa notte," indeed!), not to mention Peter Grimes's hurricane-force seacoast monsoon. And no one but Verdi himself could have topped the magnificent tempest that precipitates Gilda's demise in Rigoletto. But given my druthers, I would go with Otello's electrifying opening as aural backdrop to the wild weather that overturned ancient oaks and sent trees crashing onto rooftops in my erstwhile shady and sheltered New York City neighborhood.

Verdi again takes the laurels for music that expresses the exquisite and lingering anguish of watching a loved one in failing health. Could one ask for a more moving accompaniment for gnawing filial worry than the finale of Simon Boccanegra, with poor Amelia murmuring in that inimitably melodious fashion of Verdi's, "No, non morrai, l'amore vinca di morte il gelo. Risponderà dal cielo pietade al mio dolor" .

As for something to help conquer the horror of the water pouring relentlessly through our kitchen ceiling for hours on end, well, do not Tamino and Pamina brave their watery trials with fortitude and even joy under the wondrous musical umbrella that issues from his magic flute, which transforms the deluge to a sparkling waterfall and stretches a kind of existential rainbow over their heads even in the face of disaster .

In the end, though, what one really needs to pull one through such a disheartening stretch is a sense of humor. So I think, really, the most appropriate soundtrack for my life at present would be found here — at Fawlty Towers. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elina Garanča's New Music Video

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Crossover) Permanent link

Reports of the death of the music video, much like that of print media, are greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga proved as much earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she nabbed eight "moonmen" (MTV’s equivalent to the Oscar statuette) in recognition of her revitalization of the genre.

Classical-music marketers never met a pop trend they didn't like, so Deutsche Grammophon gives us "El Vito," a music video of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča singing Obradors' song in support of her latest album, Habanera.

The video seems singularly designed to convince us that Garanča is a sexy minx in her role as a hard, bewitching, capricious Gypsy — but is that enough of a concept to sustain its three-and-a-half minutes? Music videos were created to visualize pop music, and over the past thirty years, the style of their presentation has evolved in tandem with the style of that particular genre. Does Garanča's video embrace the idea of a cinematography of classical music? No. Could one be created? Maybe. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Bootlegger's Blues

(Observations, Tristan Kraft, Cinema, Soundtracks) Permanent link
Blogs Boardwalk Empire LG 10110
Paz de la Huerta and Anthony Laciura in Martin Scorsese's
Boardwalk Empire
Abbot Genser/HBO

Many opera fans probably first took note of director Martin Scorsese's taste in opera with Raging Bull, which employed Cavalleria Rusticana's Intermezzo as the soundtrack to its opening credits. Likewise, his 1993 period piece, The Age of Innocence — based on the novel by Edith Wharton — opened on a tableau of Gounod's Faust playing at the New York Academy of Music. In 2006, Scorsese had Jack Nicholson — portraying Irish-American mob boss Frank Costello in The Departed — throw a handful of cocaine at a prostitute, while the sextet from Lucia, "Chi mi frena in tal momento?" played in the background. (The tune is heard later in the movie as Costello's ringtone.)

Scorsese yet again demonstrated his interest in opera with Monday night's premiere of Boardwalk Empire, HBO's new drama about the woes of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terence Winter have assembled a fairly huge cast for the twelve-episode show, including Metropolitan Opera character-tenor Anthony Laciura. One thing is already apparent: the breadth of talent on the show ranges widely. Laciura, all opera-industry bias aside, is one of the most capable actors, and Paz de la Huerta is one of the least.

In a sequence at the end of the episode, two characters are knocked-off while Cavalleria Rusticana's "O Lola, ch'ai di latti"   plays in the background. One actor stands at the gramophone when the hit comes, and moments later his blood decorates the famous picture of Caruso, mid-drum-strike, dressed as Pagliaccio. Indeed, la commedia è finita. spacer 

TRISTAN KRAFT

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Book Report

(Observations, F. Paul Driscoll, Books) Permanent link
Blogs Patti LuPone Memoir 91710  

For those of you who were riding the Number 1 uptown local this morning, I'm the fellow who was laughing out loud at the book I was reading. Patti LuPone: A Memoir — the brand-new autobiography by the star of Broadway's upcoming Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — is one of the best theater memoirs I have read in years. LuPone pulls no punches and takes no prisoners; her stories about Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, are sharp enough to cut glass. She tells plenty of stories on herself, not afraid to own up to her mistakes or confess to her own occasionally wild behavior. But this lady is an artist to her core, and her passion for acting and for the theater registers on every page. The last actor who wrote about the theater and about herself with such candor was the late Ruth Gordon — like LuPone, a complete American original.

LuPone became a star in 1979, when Evita opened on Broadway, and has stayed a star ever since. Within the past ten years I've met LuPone several times in connection with OPERA NEWS — she's been on the cover twice — and been completely charmed by her professionalism and her wit. But I date my time as a LuPone fan from the winter of 1973–74, when I saw her and her fellow members of The Acting Company in New York at the Billy Rose Theater on Broadway and on tour at the Spingold Theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. I admired her ripely bitchy Lucy Lockit in The Beggar's Opera, but I loved her as Irina in The Three Sisters. It's my favorite Chekhov play, and more than thirty years later, that Acting Company staging by Boris Tumarin is still at the top of my list. In the last act, Irina has a heartwrenching scene with Baron Tuzenbach, a man whom she does not love, but who is about to die in a duel. I've never forgotten the way LuPone looked at Norman Snow, her Tuzenbach: with a small, tight lift of her chin, LuPone's Irina swallowed her pity for the Baron but seemed to increase the distance between them by miles. You knew that both of them were doomed, and that neither of them deserved it. It was a great moment — and LuPone's book brought back memories of many more of them. spacer 

F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Rediscoveries

(Recordings, Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

When I was little, Renata Tebaldi was "it." In my household, the Verdi recordings on the shelf all featured Tebaldi, my mother's favorite, and it didn't much occur to me that a Verdi soprano could sound any other way. Of course I occasionally heard other divas of the current generation, in passing, when some grownup turned the Saturday Texaco radio broadcasts on, but the essential sound that was stuck in my head was La Tebaldi's, and hers was the image I associated with the great heroines of opera-land. (To my eyes, the Tebaldi Traviata cover and the cover of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights had a similar glamour and sex appeal and were, in fact, not all that easy to tell apart.)

It wasn't until the opera bug bit me as a young teenager that I started branching out and discovering that all those great melodies could be sung in many idiosyncratic ways, and to very different effect. Via television and radio, I became a devotee of "little Renata" (Scotto), a great Met favorite at that time, whose lean, metallic sound struck my ears as particularly youthful and clean. As I began attending live performances more and more regularly, I gradually came to recognize and appreciate the vast variety of timbres, personalities and styles offered by the artists of the day and no longer expected that archetypal Tebaldi sound — a good thing, as no other soprano has ever reproduced it.

The danger of such early familiarity with a great singer is that one often comes to take her charms for granted. Tebaldi always sounded exactly right to me, but because she was the first and, for a time, only example I had of how certain roles should be sung, I did not understand quite what a special thing her artistry was. My loyalty to Tebaldi was such a foregone conclusion that as time went on I did not listen as closely to her as I might to other less familiar artists, because I already knew what I was going to hear.

The beauty of it, of course, is that later in life one has a chance to "discover" a beloved singer all over again in the context of many years of exposure to different interpretations, both live and on recording. The advent of podcasts and YouTube and the release of archival materials on CD and video has brought easy access to historic performances I had not encountered before, and in poring over them, I have relished the chance to listen old favorites with fresh ears. It's nice to know, in retrospect, that it was not ignorance that made Tebaldi seem so perfect: the warm, luminous tone, the unbroken legato, the infallible evenness from top to bottom of the register, the breath control and command of dynamics, and above all else, that rich, creamy, enveloping wave of sound, utterly devoid of shrillness, are sui generis. For vocal beauty and Italianate line, Tebaldi is still "it." spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Summertime Blues

(Recordings, Observations, Tristan Kraft, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link
Blog Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin 9110  

George and Ira Gershwin's melodies pervade popular culture with the same frequency as Carmen or Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Two weeks ago, Brian Wilson contributed to the fold of Gershwin interpretations, releasing his newest album "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin." The album, issued on Disney Pearl Series, is his second after the release of the much-anticipated "Smile" in 2005.

As you might expect, the former Beach Boy presents these standards, musical theater numbers and arias in cooing, three and four-part harmonies awash in reverb. Wilson plays "'S Wonderful" as a bossa nova, à la João Gilberto; he redefines "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess as a instrumental jig for harmonica; and he adds both string and saxophone accompaniment to "Summertime" , singing with what you might call Southern California sprezzatura.

If it's too weird for you, there are plenty of other renditions to fall back on. Take the following, for instance: Leontyne Price singing "Summertime" for Jimmy Carter in 1978. spacer 

– TRISTAN KRAFT

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Sounds of Love

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Cinema, Listening, John Adams, Soundtracks) Permanent link

Luca Guadagnino's film Io Sono l’Amore, which is being billed in the U.S. as I Am Love, is an enchanting consideration of love in a modern Italian world.

The movie is a delight for the senses, and not just because of the shots of the ancient-seeming, lavishly appointed villas. The director cobbled together preexisting music composed by John Adams to create the film score. The results are anything but your typical, sentimental movie-music. The selections, including "The Chairman Dances" and excerpts from Harmonielehre, have the clear, ringing and invigorating sounds that mark Adams's early-career minimalist compositions — music that seems to awaken the movie's heroine, played by the magnificent Tilda Swinton, to the life-affirming power of love.

Below, Swinton calls it Adams's "unedited" sound, which is a nice way to put it. spacer 

—OUSSAMA ZAHR

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The Glass Mountain

(Observations, Cinema, F. Paul Driscoll, Nino Rota) Permanent link
Blog Images Glass Mountain DVD COver 82310  

Among my guilty pleasures are movies about opera — that is, film that feature opera in the plotline as opposed to movies of operas, such as the Zeffirelli Otello, or the Francesco Rosi Carmen, which despite their many virtues are somehow never as satisfying as an opera-house performance. (Captures of live performances, such as the Met's HD presentations, are in another, more exalted, class entirely.) What I love to watch are backstage films on the order of Serenade Mario Lanza and Licia Albanese as Otello and Desdemona! — or Interrupted Melody, which has Eleanor Parker lip-synching her way through everything from Musetta's waltz to Brünnhilde's immolation.

I recently watched a DVD of The Glass Mountain, a 1949 British film about a composer (Michael Denison) torn between his love for his genteel English bride (Dulcie Gray) and his passion for the earthy Italian girl (Valentina Cortese) who nursed him to health when he was injured in the War. The Glass Mountain was evidently very popular in the U.K., although not an international success on the level of 1948's The Red Shoes, another movie that presented a triangular love story within the context of a backstage milieu. Just as the climax of The Red Shoes was the presentation of an original ballet, the payoff in The Glass Mountain is a lengthy sequence, set in La Fenice, devoted to an original opera (or at least excerpts from an original opera) called The Glass Mountain. It's about a poor young man who loves a poor young lady but marries a rich young lady, only to have signora numero uno die and show up as a ghost at the wedding reception. The original pair of lovers are reunited when the young man plunges to his death while searching for his beloved in the mists that shroud the glass mountain of the opera's title.

The score is by the incomparable Nino Rota — the main theme is quite striking and almost impossible to forget, as is often the case with Rota's film work. The opera stars at work are soprano Elena Rizzieri, an attractive artist with a tangy sound whose work is otherwise unfamiliar to me, and the great Tito Gobbi, looking quite handsome and slim at thirty-six, sounding marvelous and handling the English-language dialogue with impressive ease. In an odd twist, Gobbi is meant to be playing himself — "Tito Gobbi of La Scala" — within the confines of a fictional story but pulls it off with complete conviction. In addition to his work as the hero of The Glass Mountain opera, Gobbi also sings a lullaby of sorts, accompanying himself on the accordion, to a group of wounded soldiers and does so with an almost indecent amount of charm.

The soundtrack for the Glass Mountain opera is conducted by Franco Ferrarra, who was later one of Riccardo Muti's teachers; the on-screen conducting is handled with painful clumsiness by actor Michael Denison, who plays the conflicted composer at the center of the drama's love triangle. Despite Valentina Cortese's sympathetic performance as the "other woman," the movie's stiff-upper-lip love triangle is mightily silly stuff. What makes the film of interest today is Gobbi and Rota's haunting music; the opera excerpts leave one wondering what the full score sounds like.

I watched the film on a VCI DVD that had poor sound — most noticeable in the disc's "extra," a 1939 cartoon featuring egrets meandering through a moonlit waterscape to the strains of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." But a YouTube clip of Gobbi at work in The Glass Mountain has been posted below that is well worth a look. spacer 

— F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Musical Feast

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

This has been a pleasant enough summer in the Big Apple, with no shortage of cultural offerings on hand, but one longstanding tradition I miss is the Met's Operas in the Parks, whose forty-plus-year history of bringing free, full-length opera performances to tri-state-area parks has to stand among the greatest gifts any arts organization has ever offered to its public.

One of the great joys of summer is listening to music al fresco — preferably on a lush lawn, with a group of good friends and a lavish picnic spread before you. There's something about the fresh air that enhances both the love of food and the food of love and makes the whole experience transcend the sum of its part. Yes, the mosquitoes can be annoying, the ground is hard and sometimes damp, and the speakers, especially if one is a bit removed from the stage, can hardly be said to transmit a lifelike surround-sound effect. Indeed, it's often hard to tell whether what one is hearing is a transcendent performance by a great virtuoso or something more run-of-the-mill. Worst of all, the company outside one's own blanket can be noisy and noisome. We've all had to sit next to the chain-smokers, the chatty Cathys, the cell-phone addicts, the parents who think their children's shrieks of delight or whines of sheer boredom add something to the musical texture. Still, it is always great music being played or sung at a high level under the inspiring vault of nature, and even on occasions when all the aforementioned irritations have conspired together to detract from the hoped-for idyllic setting, I have seldom regretted spending an evening in this fashion.

Of course, New York still has the Philharmonic's summer concerts, and the Met, even in these hard times, has been generous enough to provide its own free Summerstage events, featuring up-and-coming operatic artists alongside some seasoned stars. But one of my favorite things about those complete opera evenings of yore, when I lay stretched out in the grass with thousands of my fellow New Yorkers as bel canto or verismo filled the air, was the pleasant awareness that many of my neighbors were just dipping their toes into this fabulous art form I love so much for the very first time, taking advantage of the chance to let a whole opera wash over them without having to commit to the price of a ticket or put on their Sunday best or sit still in a red plush seat for hours at a time. Despite the limitations of the sound system, a live, full-length performance gives a sense of what opera is all about that cannot be had from a concert of excerpts. (A week's worth of HD screenings on the plaza does provide the complete-opera experience, but not the thrill of living the music in real time along with the singers, or the decadence of lolling about on a blanket in the midst of a lofty cultural event.) I used to love to eavesdrop on the pre-concert and intermission conversations of my neighbors, as they tried to make sense of the often perplexing synopsis or offered their awed newbie takes on the singing, and on the astonishing scope and scale of the whole endeavor. And for every rambunctious child that spoiled my enjoyment of a favorite musical moment, there was another, rapt and open-mouthed at this novel sound-world, whose wonderstruck enjoyment exponentially multiplied my own.

It's great that some of the Met's young artists are getting a new kind of exposure via the free concerts on Summerstage. But I cannot help hoping that one summer soon the grand-scale, full-cast-and-orchestra performances that once captivated seas and seas of people on the Great Lawn will be back in business again. spacer 

— LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Bad Press

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Criticism, Advice) Permanent link

Not long ago I was introduced to a New York voice teacher, an ex-singer who had kind of a half-baked career and is still looking for someone to blame for it. When she found out that I worked for OPERA NEWS, she said, "Oh ... well, we all know how you get into that magazine, don't we?"

"Actually, no," I said. "How do you get into it?"

"Oh, come on — everyone knows that the singers' publicists pay for that kind of coverage."

Well, that's news to me. In the twenty-two years that I have worked for OPERA NEWS, I've witnessed many jaw-dropping incidents with people who work in the music business, but never has a publicist offered to pay to get a client into the magazine's pages. Who knows how people get these ideas about what goes on behind the scenes at our publication? If publicists paid to get their clients into the magazine, does anyone honestly think I'd still be living in a small one-bedroom apartment and planning budget trips on Expedia? But this little episode did get me to thinking about why people talk so much about music publicists, assigning them such a significant role in the way the business works.

I'll tell you something: many of them are quite insignificant. What's more, many of them are quite unnecessary.

Now, institutional publicists can do a great deal of good. Large symphony orchestras and opera companies need good P.R. and marketing people, and they can be of enormous benefit to the singers who perform with those organizations. (I'm not so sure about some of the smaller organizations: there's one group in New York that changes publicists the way I change rolls of paper towels, and it never seems to make any difference.)

But I think that every single one of my OPERA NEWS colleagues agrees with me on this point: an individual singer or a conductor has the greatest need of a publicist when the career has grown so unwieldy, so complicated by millions of details, that a publicist can act as kind of a combination of clearing house and production stage manager. A lot of singers — younger ones, especially — sign on with publicists because they are under the impression that publicists will bring them greater visibility and that greater visibility will yield more work. Back in the day when cultural departments in media outlets ran wider and deeper than they do now, and when everyone was reading the same magazines and newspapers and watching the same T.V. shows, that might have been the case. But the whole media scene has changed so dramatically. I'm not a member of the Greatest Generation, and I hate to sound like one, lecturing those darned kids on the importance of a proper work ethic. But: the best way to secure more work for yourself, to build your career, is by showing up on time for rehearsals, knowing your music, performing your heart out, not making a pest of yourself with management — in other words, doing your job. That way, you have at least a fighting chance of being re-engaged.

Whether you are a young singer or one in mid-career, a publicist really can't help you get work. If you are a young singer, what most publicists are going to do is charge an exorbitant monthly fee. Most likely you will be charged every time the publicist has lunch with someone like me for the purpose of pitching a story. One thing I think a lot of young singers don't understand is that a lot of editors and writers keep their eyes open — they can spot young talent and develop an interest in it without some paid handmaiden spoon-feeding information to them.

Now, I know that this is not always the case. There are some editors who rely heavily on publicists to supply not only the story idea, but the whole package — the writer included. I think this is a horrifying practice: at OPERA NEWS, we tend to resist the idea of the publicist recommending a writer, because we automatically assume that what we're going to get is a piece that the publicist has unduly influenced.

There are good publicists around, too — smart, seasoned pros who really know how to pitch a story and don't whine if you say no. But I'm afraid that they're outnumbered by the publicists who don't do their homework, pitch story ideas that have appeared in the magazine only a few months earlier, or alienate the editors by trying to use various forms of bullying or emotional blackmail to get their way. I'm not going to mention any names, not even the names of the good ones, because if I do, the "others" will be calling me wanting to know why their names were included, and why they thought I always liked them, and wondering what they've done to offend me and how they might make it up.

The music business is in a shambles, and it simply can't — or shouldn't — support the number of publicists who have hung out a shingle for themselves. So, especially to those struggling young artists, I would say: use that money that you were saving for a monthly P.R. commission to hit that sale at Barneys or Bloomingdales. Buy your grandmother that Three Irish Tenors CD she's seen advertised on TV. Hire someone to teach you how Wozzeck really goes. spacer 

— BRIAN KELLOW

 

E tu, Renée?

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link

I feel ever so slightly betrayed by Renée Fleming. After the 2005 release of her jazz CD Haunted Heart, which I liked none too much, she really went out of her way to regain my trust. She turned in one splendid performance after another (from Violetta and Desdemona to Tatiana and Rusalka) and recorded a handful of intriguing CD projects. And then — with a regularity that rivals the phases of the moon — she dropped another crossover album.

That is not to say that Dark Hope, her new indie-rock effort, is nearly so heinous as Haunted Heart, which left me demanding concrete, recorded evidence that Fleming actually spent any of her college days touring as a jazz singer.

At the end of the day, Dark Hope is simply impressive in its genre impersonation (more the music than the video for the first single; see below). You can catch Joanne Sydney Lessner’s delicious yet fair review of the album in the October issue of OPERA NEWS. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

Front-Page Opera?

(News, Observations, Elizabeth Diggans) Permanent link

In 1993, OPERA NEWS published an article called "Front-Page Opera," in which we asked fifteen writers, reporters and other notables what twentieth-century news events they would like to see as opera topics. With the success of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the 1986 New York City Opera staging of the premiere of X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X), plus a couple of works in the pipeline dealing with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and at least one on the Manson family, we thought at the time we might be on to something. Was the availability of twenty-four-hour news so exciting that opera librettists would be turning exclusively to CNN for ideas? Well, it would seem not.

The undeniably operatic life of Nelson Mandela (with the bonus character of his now ex-wife Winnie) was a suggestion that did end up onstage, if not yet in major international houses. The fall of the Romanovs, another proposed storyline, received royal opera treatment with the debut of Deborah Drattell's Nicholas and Alexandra at Los Angeles Opera in 2003, with Plácido Domingo (well, really, who else?) in the pivotal role of Rasputin. One of our contributors felt strongly that the lives and deaths of the Ceausescus, the evil husband-and-wife dictators of Romania, would be ideal grist for the opera mill. This one never happened — probably because nobody could think of a Romanian soprano to play the missus.

Not one of the group we asked in 1993 mentioned J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb as a promising opera topic. Oops. In fact, none of the suggestions we received has inspired an opera with broad, mainstream appeal, let alone multiple productions.

Nobody considered TV talk-show hosts potential title characters, so Jerry Springer: The Opera, London's long-running, Olivier-Award winning musical wasn't on anybody's radar. Apparently we didn't realize that tabloid topics and "real" news would become almost indistinguishable within a few years. After all, could any of us have predicted that an opera about the life of Anna Nicole Smith would find its way to — of all places — the stage of the Royal Opera House in 2011?

Maybe we should forget the news (and what passes for news today). It does seem that now, perhaps more than ever, novels — from The Little Prince to Moby-Dick — lure librettists. This is by no means a new trend, but a surprising number of the resulting operas display considerable (for these times) staying power. So former Book-of-the-Month Club selections make for good operas, right? Not everybody would agree on that (check out the OPERA NEWS Archives and read Joel Honig's "A Novel Idea," OPERA NEWS's Aug. 2001). spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

Crossing Over

(Recordings, Observations, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

Why do so many practitioners of "crossover" profess to be so deeply offended by the term? It has no inherently negative connotation as far as I can see: it was coined merely to indicate an artist "crossing over" from one genre into another — generally one for which he/she was not previously known. The word itself certainly implies no harm in that.

Many artists have successfully made forays outside what is considered their home territory. Take Eileen Farrell's recordings of Irving Berlin or Rodgers & Hart: I defy anyone listening blind to identify Farrell as an interloper in the pop world. And Cesare Siepi's "I've Got You Under My Skin" — silly, over-the-top and heavily accented as it is — remains fun, sexy and utterly irresistible. In the opposite direction, Sting has earned kudos for his idiosyncratic but earnest ventures into lute song, and Aretha Franklin's accidental appropriation of "Nessun dorma" was a smash hit.

I can't imagine Farrell would have had much objection to the term "crossover," since she seemed to hold dual citizenship in the pop and classical worlds and could travel back and forth over the border confident of a warm welcome whichever way she went. The trouble seems to arise with artists who want to be taken for natives but come across more as the kind of daytripping tourists whose cameras, Hawaiian shirts and socks-with-sandals are a dead giveaway. One suspects there would be less niggling over terminology if the artists in question were not so worried about tripping over the barbed wire and finding themselves caught in no-man's land, with hostile searchlights trained on them from both sides. spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther 

Take a Bow

(Observations, Performances, Elizabeth Diggans) Permanent link

As the opera season draws to a close and American Ballet Theatre takes up residence at the Metropolitan Opera house, a change comes over the audience. When the final curtain falls on even a first-rate opera performance, audience members rush toward the exits with the panicked urgency of passengers just informed, "By the way, that iceberg was a tad larger than we thought, and it turns out we're a bit short on lifeboats." Maybe I'm being unfair. I suppose there might be one or two brain surgeons in the audience who've turned their cell phones back on to find their presence is needed in the operating room STAT. But can all those frantic people clambering over me without apology really be brain surgeons? Is it asking too much to give the singers the courtesy of a few minutes of appreciation? On some nights, people don't seem to mind waiting around to boo; why not wait around to applaud on other nights? What's the hurry?

On the other hand, at the end of an even average ballet performance, a whole new show begins in front of the curtain. Any prima ballerina worth her salt recognizes that she now owns that little piece of the stage, and she's not about to let anybody take it from her. This is her moment, and you'll get none of that surprised "Oooh, all of you nice people standing there applauding for little ol' me?" attitude from her. And her male costar (no matter how spectacularly he himself has danced) gallantly assumes the role of her enslaved go-fer, trotting around obediently picking up bouquets and presenting them to her on bended knee with an expression of adoration (probably concealing the fact that he can't stand the very sight of her). She may deign to remove a flower from a bouquet and return it to him with a gracious nod or affectionate kiss (never letting on that she's not quite certain what his name is). This can go on for quite a while, and the audience loves it — and stays to watch, as if the ballet hadn't really ended when the prince pledged his undying love to the wrong swan and had to go back to that damn lake to find the swan he truly loved.

So, should opera singers take a lesson from this? Would a master class on the art of the curtain call taught by one or two (preferably Russian — they do it best) ballerinas help? The problem, of course, will be how to train the tenors to pick up the bouquets — and actually hand them over to the sopranos. Maybe that's where the baritones come in. spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

 

 

Sound Check

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Listening) Permanent link

 

Blogs Verdi Arias CD Cover 62510  

Recorded sound is not necessarily accurate or fair. Like a photograph, it carries the promise of realism, deceiving us into believing that what we're hearing (or seeing) is 100% representational — a duplication of a live experience — when in fact it isn't at all.

Sondra Radvanovsky is an estimable artist, a soprano capable of delivering thundering fortissimos and a keening line in the Verdi repertory. But in my opinion, her latest CD, entitled Verdi Arias and reviewed in our upcoming August issue, shows off the singer's power but not her strengths. Now, Delos is what we might call a boutique record label. But even so, the engineer could have given us something better than a big, fuzzy soprano sound drowning in reverb.

Having seen Radvanovsky live at the Met as Elvira in Ernani and Leonora in Trovatore (selections from both operas appear on the CD, and excerpts can be heard below), I can testify to her distinctive timbre, dynamic range and, above all, tonal clarity — to say nothing of intangibles like her warmth and dramatic alertness.

The disc puts me in mind of Dolora Zajick, a colossus of the dramatic mezzo repertory, who also recorded an album of Verdi arias that seemed to miss the point of her art. Let's hope that Radvanovsky finds a sound engineer as loving and solicitous as the ones Renée Fleming enjoys over at Decca, the kind of collaborator who can lavish attention upon her voice so that we might better enjoy it. spacer 

— Oussama Zahr

"D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Il Trovatore   

"Tutto sprezzo che d'Ernani" from Ernani   

 

Critical Conditions

(Observations, Elizabeth Diggans, Criticism) Permanent link

In the July issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott's column discusses the evaporation of the traditional print movie review. A skirmish between Salon.com contributor Andrew O'Hehir and a growing number of print reviewers who've recently lost their jobs has been waged in the blogosphere. O'Hehir wrote that whining about their plight made the canned critics look like a "bunch of ginormous great babies." Ouch. Apparently, the role of the print movie critic has become, if not quite obsolete, at least inconsequential. After all, deep down, don't we all consider ourselves competent movie critics? We go to the movies we want to see for whatever reason makes sense to us (and sometimes the reason can be pretty ridiculous and possibly embarrassing). Do we go just because a critic tells us we should? Probably not.

So should live-performance criticism suffer the same fate as film criticism appears to face? In a word, no.

A well-written, carefully-considered live-performance review not only tells its reader something about a once-in-a-lifetime experience (that exact performance is never going to happen, even with the same artists at the same theater in the same production, more than once) but ideally offers something more: background information on the piece and possibly its composer or creator, its production history and why the specific performance in question is special (or not).

I like to think I've learned something after reading a review, and I also like to think the reviewer has been to a lot more performances of the work (or at least studied it more closely and knows far more about it) than I. Theatrical experiences should be described, dissected and criticized (or praised) by the best writers we can find. How else will future generations know what they missed when we're no longer around to tell them how much better theater was in our day? Sure, YouTube is a gold mine, but isn't it really best for samba-dancing babies (ginormous or not) and well-informed beauty-pageant contestants educating us about international problems? spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

Hearing Loss

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

The rap against Kathleen Battle used to be that her voice was not big enough to fill the Met. I never had the slightest difficulty making out Battle's pealing, silvery tones in the vast spaces of the house. The roles I saw her in — Susanna, Adina, Pamina, Rosina — were all canny repertory choices for her pristine and youthful sound, with its unmistakable ping, and she seemed always to be paired with conductors who knew how to achieve transparency of orchestral texture and balance with the voices whereby the collective climaxes emerged thrilling and undimmed, with no sense of holding back.

The radio broadcast of Battle's Adina from 1992 features another artist of small but spectacular vocal means: Stanford Olsen, who sang Nemorino, was a light lyric tenor blessed with rare musicality and refinement. Like Battle, he possessed the clarity and brilliance of tone, the incisive articulation and the instinctive feel for the shape of a phrase to project an illusion of vocal power when needed, so that even without a big, beefy sound he could produce a whopping musical effect. When he sang softly, you could probably have heard a pin drop in the hall, except that the audience tended to be so rapt at those moments they would have died rather than drop one. And because he had the courage, the technique and the delicate beauty of sound to offer a true pianissimo — always audible in the prevailing hush it inspired — his fortes, though never loud by Met standards, provided sufficient contrast, build and ring to pack a genuine punch within the context of his nuanced singing.

I've never quite understood why Olsen did not have a bigger career. His Ottavio was suave, manly and heartfelt; his Belmonte made the long, sustained phrases and tricky articulations that can come across as a tenorial obstacle course into the miraculous expressive devices they were meant to be. His Nemorino was poignant, mellifluous, honey-sweet, at once dignified and hilarious. And he had one thing that is in far too short supply — the ability to float an ethereal note or phrase so freely and easily that it seemed to emanate straight from his heart, bypassing the constraints of his throat, and hang effortlessly and magically in the air.

I often wonder whether the current craving for big, blaring voices is a result of generational hearing loss occasioned by too many rock concerts and sessions with the headphones set on high, or is part of a discouraging trend toward passive participation in the arts. Nowadays, we seem to require the singers to come to us with a kind of in-your-face boldness that demands our attention, whether we like it or not, rather than requiring us to prick up our ears and lean forward eagerly to catch every shade of musical meaning.

Do we go to the opera just to hear the music as it goes by, struggling to drown out the din of our own distracting thoughts — or can we muster the extra effort to focus actively on taking in every word and note of something worth really listening to? spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther

No Explanations

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The brilliant pianist and pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne used to tell her students, "Isn't it wonderful that music is not a science?" Well — yes, it is wonderful. But in these days when arts leaders seem more often to speak in terms of quantification than to assess the quality and merit of various projects, I'm all too happy to be reminded that music is not a science.

I confess that I've often been surprised by how difficult it is for many musicians to discuss the nuts and bolts of how they do what they do. When I began writing for OPERA NEWS, back in the late 1980s, it didn't take me long to discover that singers and conductors — singers, particularly — were often at something of a loss to describe the evolution of their performances in anything other than rather vague and general terms. I would nervously traipse off to an interview armed with a list of questions that I hoped would trigger a provocative, detailed conversation — and often I was disappointed in the result. Not always: Dolora Zajick, for example, can hold forth on technical matters in a way that's endlessly fascinating. Too often, though, I came away feeling that I had learned half of what I'd hoped to learn.

It took me a while to understand that many singers — many musicians, period, in fact — are much better at making music than talking about it. In the August issue of OPERA NEWS, Richard Bonynge freely admits this. In fact, in my experience, I have had many more precisely detailed conversations with writers and professors about the structure and demands of various works than I have had with performers themselves. Why? I think it's because those writers and professors tend to approach music as a problem to be solved, and understood; they're always looking to crack the code of some monumental work, as if understanding every facet of how it's all put together will lead them to a more profound appreciation of the piece itself.

There's no guarantee that that will happen, of course. I was thinking of this recently as I was listening, once more, to Eileen Farrell singing Brünnhilde's immolation scene — a live performance from 1951, with Victor de Sabata conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soprano is in astonishing form — although she sang brilliantly for much of her career, she never sounded as ravishing as she did during the 1950s, before gall-bladder surgery cost her some of the refulgent bloom at the top of her voice. Her Brünnhilde is a staggering achievement, sung in firm, taut musical lines, and in sensuous, impassioned, womanly tones. (Although Farrell is one of my favorite sopranos, I have no trouble admitting that she doesn't always inhabit her music as fully as she does here.)

I began thinking of the two years — 1997 to 1999 — when I collaborated with Eileen on her autobiography, which the publisher, Northeastern University Press, stuck with the meaningless title Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. (When the book was published, Deanna Durbin wrote me a letter from France, indicating that the title was more appropriate for her life story than for Eileen's; I didn't argue with her.)

While we worked on the book, I frequently pummeled Eileen with questions about how she did this, how she did that. Usually, what she did in response was bite her lip and frown at me. Once, she made me fall over laughing by saying, "Do you think I give a shit about stuff like this?" She had a great appreciation of the various twists and turns of her own career, a terrific, self-deprecating wit, and she told a story like nobody else. But I soon realized that she wasn't giving me much about how she had mastered various parts of the Ring or Cavalleria Rusticana or Wozzeck … because she didn't quite know herself. She'd been a good student. She'd worked hard. She'd perfected her technique. She could sing a vast and varied amount of repertory incredibly well. She was touched with musical genius, in an unlikely package. But she didn't know exactly how she'd done it all. She'd just done it. Like all great artists, to a certain degree she'd been a creature of instinct, and there was only so much she could tell me. She knew how it felt, and that was enough. Once, while she was teaching at Indiana University in the 1970s, a student bombarded her with a string of technical questions. Eileen put her hand up and said, "Listen, honey — I don't know your soft palate from a hole in the ground."

All of that technical knowledge is nice. Book-learnin' is a wonderful thing. I prize it. But how much does it really enhance our experience of listening to a great performance, which most often skips the brain and goes straight to the heart? Isn't the most important thing to be able to feel that magic, to recognize and respond to it, when it really happens? spacer 

– BRIAN KELLOW

 

 

 

LuAnn Foster Jenkins

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, The Real Housewives of New York City) Permanent link

Florence Foster Jenkins is so infamous nowadays for being spectacularly untalented (and deluded about her untalented-ness) that the mere mention of her name has become shorthand for an inept singer of means and daring who would inflict her peculiar brand of art upon the world.  

Jenkins’s latest heir apparent is Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, from the Bravo TV show The Real Housewives of New York City, who decided one day to record and release a dance-diva, spoken-word track called "Money Can’t Buy You Class." (We can count our lucky stars that Jenkins’s brilliance was untouched by Auto-Tune, which La Contessa uses quite liberally.) 

The comparison begins with their shared trouble in tackling ascending intervals, but really, do we need a point-by-point? Enjoy!

– Oussama Zahr

 

Barbiere-Shop

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

Time was when no social gathering would have seemed complete without somebody sitting down at the piano for a sing-along. Nowadays, the need to make our own music has long since been obviated by the phonograph and its long line of descendants. We need only pop in a CD or download a tune — or 500 — onto the old iPod to have our fill of Beethoven, Chopin or Lady Gaga, without having to lift a finger to practice a single scale. But there is one form of home-grown musicale that seems to retain widespread popularity — the barbershop quartet. All you need are three buddies with decent intonation (or strangers who will soon become buddies if their intonation is decent enough) and tolerant neighbors who won’t mind a free "concert" now and then.

I recently discovered the pleasures of barbershop singing when a group of friends decided their male quartet needed a female adjunct to provide variety (and perhaps to liven up the inevitable post-rehearsal cocktail hours). Barbershop is toe-tapping fun, and though I confess to liking it best in its original low-voiced form, it’s a great outlet for vocal wannabes like me, who can count and sing pretty much on pitch and even manage a passable "Voi che sapete"in the shower but outside the friendly acoustics of that tiled echo chamber could not produce a lush, opulent tone if our lives depended on it. Those four parts together, even sung in thin, individually unremarkable voices like mine, produce all the rich resonance one could wish for, and it is quite a thrill to be partially responsible for such a sound, even if one can only claim one quarter of the credit.

"So," a friend asked me at one of those cocktail hours, "has there ever been an opera with a barbershop quartet?" He thought he was kidding, but the answer, of course is yes. (Is there anything of musical value or interest that has not made its way into opera at some point in the long history of the lyric art?) There may be a multitude of examples, and I would be delighted to hear about them if anyone out there is familiar with others. The one that came to my mind was "We will rest awhile," from Scott Joplin’s only opera, Treemonisha, a work never produced in its composer’s lifetime, but which has enjoyed sporadic revivals in recent years. I sort of knew it was out there, but it wasn’t until I had tested the quartet waters myself that I grew eager to hear and inwardly digest the operatic form of that time-honored and very American genre.

 YouTube to the rescue. In among a surprising number of dreadful renditions by amateur choral groups (one foolproof way to kill the spirit of barbershop is to perform it with massed choral forces, rather than one voice to a part) I found the following homemade video, taken in a backstage corridor during a performance. It’s not only good barbershop singing: it overflows with the sheer joy of making music and the matchless sense of true bonding one derives from collaborating in a tight ensemble. Watch the guy on the left — that electric smile and the way he locks in the other three with his hands, his eyes and every other expressive means at his disposal. I dare you to listen to it and not be tempted to try it yourself.

– Louise Guinther

New ... Again

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The most thrilling performance in the Met's season came at its very end, and it was a revival at that. I wasn't fortunate enough to catch Teresa Stratas as Alban Berg's Lulu (she sang it at the Met premiere of the complete version of the work in 1980), but I have seen later revivals of the famed John Dexter production, with Catherine Malfitano and Christine Schäfer. Both had their merits, but neither one approached the brilliance of the recent outing, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. I saw it on May 12, and Petersen was a revelation, as completely satisfying as I had found her disappointing in the Met's Hamlet two months earlier. The entire cast, in fact, seemed unusually in sync with each other, as if they all understood the real point of Lulu: that it's an extended sick joke. But most of the credit for the success of the performance belongs to Fabio Luisi, the Met's recently appointed principal guest conductor. This Lulu was a tantalizing promise of what Luisi may bring to his future work with the Met orchestra. I've never heard a live performance of this opera in which the score's bluesy, subversive wit rose to the surface so consistently. And the audience was keen to what Luisi was up to, laughing out loud at several points, and not just at Lulu's magnificently amoral antics onstage — they seemed to be laughing at the effects served up by the orchestra. This hasn't been the case in past performances I've heard conducted by Met music director James Levine. Although Levine always drew beautiful, transparently detailed work from the players, he never quite seemed to be in on the opera's central joke. Masterful as his touch was, it felt that he conducted the work with a straight-faced sobriety, a certain portentousness — as if the entire opera were to be done in the tone of the chilling final scene. Much of what makes that last scene so powerful is that what comes before it doesn't really prepare us for it — we've had the rug ripped out from under us.

In the 1980s, when I worked on the performing arts staff of the 92nd Street Y, the program's director, Omus Hirshbein, worked overtime bringing a wide range of twentieth-century music to the Y's somewhat hidebound audience. I used to answer many of the letters from subscribers who wrote in angrily protesting that they had to sit through works like Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht or Berg's Chamber Concerto, which they usually derisively characterized as "new music." Berg was near completion of Lulu when he died in 1935, but for me, the Met's recent performance carried the wallop of discovery. This time around, it really did seem, in so many ways, like "new music." spacer 

– Brian Kellow

Debussy Sightings

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr) Permanent link

Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" has been popping up a lot in my life lately. I first noticed it last week in the 1995 documentary Unzipped, which I was watching as research for my interview with Isaac Mizrahi. The film shows the designer at his grand piano, retreating from the noise and intensity of the fashion world, seeking solace in quiet moments of music-making as he plays through Debussy’s gossamer composition (rather well, I might add).

100528archandroidcover_intext  

As if a piano-playing fashion designer weren’t enough of a surprise, "Clair de Lune" reared its lovely head again a few days later, this time in a pop song called "Say You’ll Go," from Janelle Monáe’s new album The ArchAndroid (released May 18). Monáe is a tiny sensation, making small waves in the music industry for the high-concept sonic landscape of her music, drawing on influences from hip-hop and Cab Calloway to disco, David Bowie and movie music. She is fascinated by futuristic film dystopias, with album titles that reference Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The ArchAndroid creates its own alternate universe, filled with a riot of musical ideas. It’s nice to think that amid the general cataclysm, Monáe finds comfort in the wistful strains of "Clair de Lune," just as Mizrahi does. spacer 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays "Clair de Lune" from Debussy's Suite Bergamasque .  
[Decca]

Janelle Monáe sings "Say You'll Go" from ArchAndroid .
[Bad Boy Entertainment]

– Oussama Zahr


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